On taking a toddler to the (non-movie) theatre.
The first song I ever sang to my son Emile was “If I Only Had a Brain,” and it wasn’t an ironic remark on the sleep deprivation he was putting us through in the maternity ward. The first book I ever bought him, before he was even born, was a Marvel Wizard of Oz graphic novel, and the first at-home movie he ever saw was the Wizard, too.
L. Frank Baum’s timeless tale, and the 1939 film classic it birthed, has always been a part of my son’s life—and my whole family’s life, for that matter. My dad, a former high-school acting teacher and playwright, was staging The Wizard of Oz when my sister was born, and three years later my mom went into labour with me while my parents were watching the annual TV airing. (Strangely, the same thing happened three years later with my cousin.) I even starred as the wizard in my grade 7 production.
So, from the moment I found out that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Wizard of Oz musical was coming to Toronto, I’ve been wanting to bring E. Thing is, he’s only three.
The theatre was a big part of my life growing up. I recall seeing my dad play George in Of Mice and Men when I was really little, and attending countless plays and musicals that he put on (including a few he wrote).
My first experience on the stage was actually at around Emile’s age, when I starred in a pre-school production of Caps for Sale: A Tale of a Peddler, Some Monkeys and Their Monkey Business. I got the role because I was the only four-year-old who didn’t cry in front of a crowd. (My parents recently gave my wife and I their old copy of the book, so now E loves running around the house yelling, “Caps for sale! Fifty cents a cap!”) And I did a string of plays and musicals in high-school, highlighted by playing the iconic jerk Monsieur Thénardier in Les Misérables.
My interest in theatre is not something I pursued later in life, but it is something I wanted to pass onto my son—and I wanted his first theatrical experience to be The Wizard of Oz. He has the story and characters down cold so he wouldn’t get confused and, at that age, simple recognition of things also provides considerable joy (as was proven when he gleefully spotted Glinda descending from the rafters of the Ed Mirvish Theatre).
My initial concern was whether E could handle sitting through a two-and-a-half hour musical. He’d happily handled a two-hour “Weird Al” Yankovic concert at 18 months (and come out of it singing “Yoda”) and more recently seen The Muppets, My Neighbour Totoro, and The Lorax. But those were kid flicks in the movie theatre and this is theatre-theatre, where it’s really important to not disturb people who have paid good money to be there.
I started talking to Emile about it a week in advance, and it did take some ‘splaining. (“Yes, it’s a theatre. No, it’s not a movie. Yes, there are chairs. No, there’s not a screen. Yes, there’s singing. No, it’s not a concert.”) By the night before, I could hear Emile singing the Scarecrow song after I put him to bed. (“Oh I could tell you why, the ocean’s near the floor…”)
My wife Carrie, however, was worried that the witch would be too scary, a not unreasonable concern considering the show’s website warns: “We recommend that The Wizard of Oz may not be suitable for children under the age of 5.”
I took the word “may” at face value and felt E could handle it. But I laid a lot of groundwork emphasizing that it was all just pretend, like when he flies around the house yelling, “Superman, to the rescue!” I also brought noise-cancelling headphones in case it got too loud (it didn’t) and apricots as a distraction treat, drove down the highway to spur an early nap, bought him a plush Toto to hug when we got there, and sat him on my lap the whole time so he’d feel safe with my arms around him.
He did tell me he was a little scared when Ms. Gulch appeared in the sepia-toned Kansas opening, but that was apparently mostly anticipatory. “Over the Rainbow” calmed him enough that he wasn’t even fazed by the dramatic, special effects-heavy twister scene and, by the time the wicked witch appeared, he was solid. I kept close tabs, regularly asking for a thumbs up or down, and by the intermission he was boasting, “I wasn’t scared because I’m a brave big boy.” I did feel him shiver a few times during the witch and wizard scenes, but he’s now at the age where he wants to push his limits a little.
E also didn’t disturb our seatmates, exclaiming out loud only once. (“That’s Tin Robot!,” he squealed, which is what he calls the Tin Woodman and don’t you try and dissuade him .) Nearby patrons approached us when the show was over to kindly note how well behaved E was and ask him how he liked it. “I liked scarecrow because he’s silly,” Emile told them, before clarifying, “falling down means silly.”
Not every three-year-old will be able to handle The Wizard of Oz, of course, nor will it mean as much to all of them. But it’s a fantastic family production and a great introduction to the theatre world, which really should be made as early as possible. Theatre is a far more authentic narrative experience for little kids than movies or TVs, and watching live actors reinforces their own pretend play, which is a hugely important developmental stage as far as learning creativity, problem solving, empathy, and emotional self-awareness.
Plus, y’know, going to the theatre is a great excuse to dress your boy in a button-up and bow tie.